$1.5 billion dollars per day cross the US-Mexico border and closing it, as Trump has proposed (and recently backtracked), would be “cataclysmic,” says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, whom Laura Carlsen interviewed in Mexico
LAURA CARLSEN: Robert Reich has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Trump administration and its policies and actions. Reich was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and has served under four presidents. He’s currently the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s written 15 books and created two acclaimed documentaries: Inequality for All, and Saving Capitalism.
I talked to Robert Reich in the beautiful Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende. He was in town to speak to the Democratics Abroad general meeting. There are an estimated 1.2 million eligible U.S. voters residing here in Mexico–another sign of the close relationship between the two countries. I asked him about Trump’s international impact, the 2020 elections, the role of moral values in U.S. politics, and Trump’s latest threat to close the border with Mexico.
Secretary Reich, thank you so much for being with us today.
ROBERT REICH: I’m delighted, Laura.
LAURA CARLSEN: Donald Trump just tweeted that if Mexico doesn’t stop all migration from the southern border, he will close the border next week. You have long experience in policy, in commerce, in labor. What’s your reaction to this statement?
ROBERT REICH: Well, that’s insane. It’s insane partly because, you know, commerce across that border is so critical to the United States, as well as Mexico. We’re talking about $1.5 billion a day. I mean, the idea of closing that border in terms of what it would do to American businesses and American investors, American shareholders, would be cataclysmic.
LAURA CARLSEN: Imagine the reaction of the border states.
ROBERT REICH: Well, it’s–you know, it’s another one of Trump’s statements. I don’t know exactly what he means. I don’t know whether he’s made he means closing it to all people, including Americans, including American nationals. Whether he means it. It’s impossible to decipher what Trump means. I don’t think he knows what he means. There’s so much huffing and puffing and bluffing when it comes to Donald Trump. One never knows.
LAURA CARLSEN: That’s true. So it could be just a bluff.
ROBERT REICH: It could be, and it’s very likely to be just another attempt by him to sound tough. And he likes to sound tough, but when it comes down to actually doing things specifically, it turns out that much of what he tries to do blows up in his own face. I mean, look what happened to the shutdown of government in the United States.
LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah, that did pretty much blow up in his face.
ROBERT REICH: That blew up in his face. The only other thing that he has accomplished–I’ll put the word “accomplished” in quotation marks–is a big tax cut for corporations and the very wealthy. And that also blew up in his face in terms of making it much easier for Democrats in 2018 to campaign against that huge tax cut. Because most people don’t like it.
LAURA CARLSEN: It doesn’t work for the majority.
ROBERT REICH: It does not work for the majority.
LAURA CARLSEN: Another part to this whole narrative about closing the border, besides twisting the arm of the Mexican government to bring them on board of the anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration is that immigrants are invading armies, they’re criminals, they’re people who are trying to game the system. You’ve worked–obviously, you were secretary of labor. You know the implications of the role. You have a very different reading of the role of immigrants in the U.S. economy.
ROBERT REICH: Laura, not only do I have a–Excuse me for interrupting. Not only do I have a different reading, but I also know the facts. And with all due respect to the President of the United States, I don’t think he is getting the facts about immigration. Immigration is critical to the United States. We have an aging population. We need young immigrants if the labor force is going to continue to function, and if the ratio between working people and retirees is going to permit Social Security, Medicare, all of the other benefits that elderly Americans need and depend on to continue to be provided.
We have a nation of immigrants. My great grandparents came over. A lot of people who are my age understand the importance of immigrants. Many young people are first generation in the United States. They also have direct experience with immigration. The only people who have standing to complain about immigration in the United States are Native Americans. If you want to really be clear about it. And I think that Donald Trump has has distorted the entire issue for political purposes.
LAURA CARLSEN: So it’s pretty clear that they would never do this, because somebody in the administration probably does know real the economic implications. But what would happen to the U.S. economy? We have–you mentioned this demographic problem, that there’s a real need. Would it come to a grinding halt?
ROBERT REICH: If you stopped all immigration into the United States from everywhere else in the world, obviously the American economy would stop. We desperately depend upon immigrants. But even from one country, like Mexico, that is so integrated into the U.S. economy. The United States and Mexico are now parts of the same North American economy. The idea of suddenly stopping all commerce and all trade across that border is utterly absurd.
LAURA CARLSEN: Robert Reich has often spoken about the risk to U.S. democracy of another Trump administration. Here in Mexico, with constant threats and insults coming out of Washington, I wanted to know about the potential impact on the international scene.
You’ve called Donald Trump the worst president in history. In modern history in the United States. And you’ve spoken extensively about the negative impact of a second Trump presidency on the United States, the broken promises, the negative restructuring that’s going on under this administration. What would happen in the rest of the world? We’re in Mexico here. There’s a great concern especially in Mexico. What would be the impact of a second Trump presidency on the rest of the world?
ROBERT REICH: Well, here’s what I’m really concerned about. It’s not just trade and commerce and immigration. It really goes to the essence of what a democracy is all about. The United States, for all its faults, and it has many faults, historically, has nevertheless been a beacon of democratic ideas, enlightenment ideas about the importance of being represented. About human rights. About the essential basics of what we call human dignity. And unless we have an America headed by somebody who understands that, and the rule of law, the United States no longer is a force for good in the world. It becomes a force, potentially, for propping up dictatorships and promoting a very different authoritarian view of what should be governmental systems. It’s already happened. It’s already started under Donald Trump. And I would fear that a second administration would give even more encouragement to authoritarians around the world.
LAURA CARLSEN: With this tremendous economic and military power to back that up.
ROBERT REICH: Well, you don’t even need the economic and military power to back it up. The president, any American president, has what Teddy Roosevelt once called a bully pulpit. That is, the power for moral leadership and moral authority. What the president does or fails to do reverberates, ricochets around the world. Donald Trump is a very dangerous man not just because what he does, but also because of what he says, and how he says it, and what he represents. This is garden variety authoritarianism. This is a step away from democratic values.
LAURA CARLSEN: Well, that brings us precisely to some of the core issues in your latest book, The Common Good, where you talk about moral values as part of government, and say that the United States is in a vicious cycle where the concept, the central concept of the common good, has been eroding. And you actually say that if there is no common good, there is no society. Explain that to us.
ROBERT REICH: A society, any society, depends upon norms, values, shared understandings of how to behave. Without those shared understandings all we have are police and laws to be enforced by police. It would be impossible to maintain a society that way. Most of the norms and most of the values we rely on in the United States, or really anywhere around the world, are tacit. They are unstated. They are unspoken. They’re everything from etiquette to politeness to the way people understand their responsibilities as members of a society.
In the United States over the last 40 or 50 years we’ve seen a deterioration in those norms and those values. Donald Trump is not the source of this. I mean, he’s the consequence of what has happened. Much of what that deterioration has been spurred by has been a leadership class that has been greedy, has not understood social responsibilities, that has basically turned its back on American workers, and accumulated vast wealth and vast power, letting people like Donald Trump gain the upper hand because so many people felt in in 2016 that the game was rigged against them. And it was rigged against them. But you see, that kind of rigging invites demagogues. And Donald Trump is the essence of demagoguery.
LAURA CARLSEN: With this bleak panorama of eroding moral values, and an election looming that could determine not just the next four years, but the survival of basic social principles, the obligatory question is: What can we do about it?
How do you turn this around? If we are in this vicious cycle of the erosion of a concept of common good that unites people and elicits moral behavior instead of the reverse, how do you begin to turn that cycle around?
ROBERT REICH: Well, there’s an old saying that a fish rots from the head down. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think the American people are essentially good. As I travel around the country I am struck by the the ways in which people come to the aid of neighbors and friends. But also first responders, and people who put in–you know, teachers, and firefighters, and social workers, and all of the people who care deeply about their communities. Most Americans don’t agree with the values of Donald Trump. They don’t agree with the values of big CEOs who are laying off tens of thousands of workers to make more money for themselves. Most Americans, I think, would support a different kind of code of ethics, a different kind of set of laws and rules.
You have only to look at the 2018 elections and see how many young progressive people were elected to Congress around the country. You have only to look to the strikes in places like West Virginia by teachers, West Virginia, Kentucky, where you’d least expect it, and the public support for those teachers in getting higher raises and fewer children in the classroom. All around the country, I think the people are beginning to rise and say no, we don’t want this kind of society.
LAURA CARLSEN: So what do you think is at stake in this 2020 election?
ROBERT REICH: Well, I think everything is at stake in the 2020 elections. I’m not sure that democracy as we understand it in the United States can survive another four years of Donald Trump.
LAURA CARLSEN: Well it’s it’s a critical moment, without a doubt. Secretary Reich, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for your time and your insights.
ROBERT REICH: Thank you, Laura.